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Northern Malaysia Struck by Lethal Strain of Bird Flu - 2004-08-19

Malaysia has confirmed that a small outbreak of avian flu in the country was caused by a viral strain that is also deadly to humans.

Malaysian government officials confirmed the H5N1 viral strain, which has killed more than two dozen people in Asia this year, was present in chickens found dead in a small privately owned flock in the north of the country.

Abi Musa Asa'ari Mohamed Nor, secretary-general of the Agriculture Ministry, told reporters that poultry in the area were being slaughtered to contain the spread of the disease.

Just weeks ago Malaysia said the country was free of the disease.

Malaysia's poultry industry is already feeling the impact of the latest cases of bird flu, as chicken exports to Japan and to neighboring Singapore have been halted.

H5N1 is the strain that claimed two dozen human lives in Vietnam and Thailand, and led to the slaughter of millions of chickens throughout Asia, early this year. Three more people have died in Vietnam in recent weeks after coming into contact with the virus.

Although H5N1 has reappeared in Southeast Asia, Richard Brown, an epidemiologist at the World Health Organization's regional office in Manila, says it is too soon to say that the virus is spreading. He notes that all of Thailand was struck by the virus early in the year.

"And in fact, it is in a part of Malaysia that is right on the Thai border," said Richard Brown. "So it is important, yes, it is another country, but in purely geographical terms I guess it is not so different from what we had before."

The government says about 170 birds, including 100 chickens, will be culled. It has imposed a 10-kilometer quarantine zone around the disease site and banned movements of poultry from Kelantan state.

H5N1, a virus that normally affects only birds, was first detected in Hong Kong in 1997, when it killed six people.

Humans can only catch the virus through direct contact with infected poultry. It cannot be contracted by eating properly cooked poultry or through human-to-human contact.

But health officials fear that the virus might change into a form that can be passed between humans, which could lead to a global pandemic of the type that occurred several times in the last century.

Avian influenza outbreaks have also been reported in recent weeks in Thailand, China, Indonesia, and South Africa.